|Timber plantations under threat from fires, gold panning|
|Tuesday, 12 June 2012 19:03|
THE question many people are asking is whether the wanton destruction by veld fires currently being witnessed on either sides of any road in Zimbabwe you happen to pass by is really necessary.
Everything is wrong about fire, either for open fire cooking, lighting the house and burning the forests for animal and mice trapping, harvesting honey or lighting a cigarette. While we cannot do without fire, this God given discovery is being used for the wrong reasons by unscrupulous people to destroy life and natural resources. The result is uncontrollable fires that are wrecking havoc in Zimbabwe.
But is there surely a motive by unscrupulous arsonists who exalt in seeing the countryside burn every year? Or is it that there are some persons who decide to light up during this dangerous fire alert period for the hell of it.
If the intention is that there was a mistake by matchstick happy people trying to clear the land in preparation of oncoming planting season, then the question that might arise is what were they doing throughout the year when winds are favourable and temperatures low?
How then can it be explained that since time immemorial, fires have been controllable and it was a very serious offence to light up a field or forest and punishable with hefty fines? Could it be that tradition forbade us to light up as it was abominable or is it we have become gullible and know that if one starts a fire, it is not punishable?
Let me proffer that most of these arsonists actually carry out burning in full knowledge of what they are doing. These arsonists are cognisant of their deeds and are always happy to do it every single year regardless of the consequences to the natural habitat of the land.
They have their own selfish ends which are basically psychopathic. They actually disregard the fire awareness campaigns and environmental fairs which are held every year as madness as they will fall far short on fulfilling their agenda of carrying out their misdeeds.
In forest plantation areas, vast tracts of pine and gum plantations have been ravaged by fires each year mainly through illegal settlers who have invaded the plantations. They decimate pine trees especially, for the purpose of clearing that no go area for their selfish gains.
Most are so gullible that they harvest the pine and sell it before they start fires to clear the land for maize planting. Others just start the fires and exalt in seeing huge pine trees go up in smoke. And indeed, pine and wattle burn very fast. Now, one wonders if it is commonsense or lack of it, one does not even begin to fathom the logic behind such a mind.
The call by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Management through its departments and parastatals has been disseminating information and carrying out fire awareness programmes and educational fairs on the dangers of starting out uncontrollable fires have gone unheeded.
It is now a given that Zimbabweans know that the fire season is between June and October every year when there are high speed winds and temperatures are high.
This information is even common in schools where debates are held on environment and in communities where drama and environmental awareness practises are held. It therefore, boggles the mind to imagine how such fires are started and by whom.
Of the over 70 thousand hectares of forest land destroyed last year by fire, timber plantations have not been spared and the resultant factor equates to burning down millions of United States dollars worth of timber.
As I write this feature, last year alone, Border Timbers (BTL) lost over 1 400 hectares of timber forests, followed by Wattle Company at 980 hectares and Allied Timbers Zimbabwe which is currently nursing bruises of over 350 hectares of timber forests.
On September 9, 2011, while thousands of people gathered at Allied Timbers Zimbabwe Mtao Forests in Mvuma for the Zibagwe-Chirumhanzu fire awareness and environmental fair, someone started a fire in the gum forest taking advantage of the absence of watchers to poach honey from the plantation. The person wanted to harvest honey from the gum trees and lit a fire to drive away the bees.
This fire quickly spread and it became uncontrollable resulting in several thousands of gum plantations being lost. These arsonists never got the honey which is worth insignificant amounts compared to the thousands of gum poles that were lost in that fire.
More so, they had the guts to return for another match while thousands of their fellow constituents were attending the fair, ironically to learn about the best and smart beehive making, beekeeping and smart harvesting without lighting fire. So how best can such misconstruents learn?
Kuchikoro ndovainzi vairova ma teacher nerekeni vamwe vari muclass. (Those who pelted teachers with stones on slingshots while others were learning in class). This maybe would describe such person or persons.
Even huchi wegonero (wild honey) can be harvested smartly without using fire but with proper honey harvesting gear which will prevent bee stings.
Member of Parliament for Zibagwe-Chirumhanzu Constituency, Cde . Emmerson Mnangagwa put it this way at the Fire Awareness Campaign at Mtao forests: "There are people in this audience who know in their hearts of hearts that they have committed arson before. I want you to search deep down your hearts and ask yourself why you did that. You know yourself and please examine your behaviour. Please chera kagomba usvipire makare uti hauchazozviite zvekare, wofushira. Ndati ufusire Usasiye risina kufushirwa nekuti that demon rinosimukazve ukapisira zvakare."
Well said Cde Mnangagwa, but do such people makes such commitments? Definitely NO.
Regardless of the fact that the gum plantations take 12 to 18 years to mature and this is consequential to the farming community who depend on gum trees for ranch and paddock fencing and other needs. Regardless of the Zimbabwe Electricity Company's need for transmission poles. Regardless of the telephone companies need for telephone poles and regardless for Tourism business which needs poles to thatch accommodation lodges and hotels who rely on pole production. The needs are many.
What about exports to Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa to name but a few of the countries that are relying on Zimbabwe's pole production to meet their needs. Must all that foreign currency go up in smoke because of these arsonists when Zimbabwe is working flat out to get money to fund essential projects just because someone wants to get honey to eat at his house?
This is abomination at its highest order. And does the Government really believe in this mantra of a mere $25 fine for offenders of over $1 million arson of planted exotic gum and pine plantations?
Excuse me! I beg to differ!
As Mtao burnt, one of Allied Timbers Zimbabwe's hubs, Erin Forest in Nyanga was burning endlessly from the start of the week ending September 9.
Several thousands of pine plantations were burnt down. That very week and the previous week, Border Timbers (Pvt) Ltd was battling to control fire ravaging its estate.
Similarly, Wattle Company was fighting fires that destroyed vast amounts of wattle plantations.
These fires which are now a common sight in the eastern highlands is believed to be started by some people within the companies themselves as revenge or fixing modes mainly by workers who are disgruntled by each other or with the company.
If it is a worker or employee, the question that begs common sense is that if you burn your workplace, where then would you or your children work tomorrow. Several fires in these timber plantations have been known to be caused by employees who were fired or are just disgruntled and when fingered out, always get off with a warning by police.
But is reporting and arresting such people who get off so lightly with a warning at the end of the day after destroying thousands of timber plantations worth millions of United States dollars the solution to this menace.
Definitely a NO. Timber companies have been lobbying the Government for years to impose stringent measures like a Jail Term to serve as a deterrent. This advocacy has come to naught as legislators seem to have retired and gone to bed on this one. Really, it's a lone crusade for the timber companies. More so for the police who cannot fathom the extent of their investigations only to find that in most cases they are bound by an outdated law which stipulates a $25 fine? They watch in awe as the arsonists go scot free. But the law is an ass.
However, parastatals such as the Environmental Management Agency must be compelled to spearhead such a campaign to advocate for stiffer jail penalties to arsonists. While they can get perky remuneration from penalties on commission on air and water pollution and other environmental misdemeanours to name but a few, it seems the campaign on veldt fires is lost. While EMA, Forestry Commission and the Timber Producers Federation seem to have lost the battle on veldt fires, now is the time to garner for advocacy on stringent jail term for perpetrators.
The campaign for burning has not all but gone lost, but with tough and the right muscles, they can spearhead the campaign. It is okay for other affected partners to participate in the campaign, but it appears that EMA, Forestry Commission and partners in the Timber Producers Federation lack the oomph to forge ahead. The campaigns have become rhetoric with each partner pulling the other way. Muscling to show who has the ultimate power will not save the day at the end of the fire season when veldts and timber plantations have gone up in smoke. Small wonder why it is important to repeat that the legislators have unwittingly retired and gone to bed over this one and will need to be awoken by a team effort from a united and forceful combination of the above partners.
It is therefore prudent to mention that no amount of shouting on top of our voices will result in even a by law that can impose a jail term for these unwanted destructions to our environment and natural resources.
Let me hasten to say that neither can we bank on endless meetings either on a round, oval of oblong meeting discussing about fire strategies and combating can repair the damage already done this year alone. Tens of fire strategy meetings have been held and similarly, campaigns have run to create awareness on fire hazards and how to avoid uncontrollable fires.
Honestly, it cannot be said that it has anything to do with hunger. Many lives have been lost over the years due to fires. A total of 50 recorded people have been killed by fires either at home or trying to put out fires. Not to mention disfigurement and loss of limb.
Most of the time, the fires are not caused by the victims but by gullible people for several reasons. Lighting fires takes many shapes and the following points are the established common causes:
Illegal settlers who have invaded plantation areas especially in Chimanimani Forest Estates who burn down pine trees to create illegal settlements and maize planting fields. These have told untold destruction to plantations owned by ATZ, Border Timbers, Wattle Company and other small scale contractors.
Illegal hunting: Poaching of wildlife and cattle in farming communities whereby poachers light up dry cow dung and lets the wind take the fire to drive animals to a certain area so that they can capture it
Kubura huchi musango (illegal harvesting of honey in bushes or forests using fire to drive away the bees)
Cigarrette butts not extinguished thrown on grass either from a moving vehicle or walking person. The fast winds carry the butt and lights up
open fires for cooking where the wind may carry the ambers resulting in fire or
non extinguished ambers thrown away in a pit that may light up with the wind
Mice hunting whereby fire is started in the forests or bushes to corner them into a corner or drive the mice to a required destination. The result is uncontrollable fire carried by the wind.
Candle lighting and people forget to put it out resulting in the wax spilling and catching on any other objects which become flammable
Land preparations where newly resettled farmers knowingly know that they must create firebreaks and gauge the wind and temperature to prevent fires from spilling to other areas. In most cases the perpetrators are either alone or do not have enough manpower to put out or back burn the fire
Parents who do not mind small children resulting in children playing with lit wood
Disgruntled people either workers on farms and timber estates and even villagers who seek revenge through arson
Properly not extinguishing fire outbreaks whereby forest fire is thought to have been put out without carrying out a 48hr proper mop up operation.
While it is important to note the above causes of fire, many fires in homes have been cause by one of the above but with the shortage of electricity, many homes have experienced some form of fire through gas emissions, paraffin stove bursts or improper wiring in the houses.
This year, ATZ on its part while actively participating in the fire awareness campaigns, it sought to boost the morale of men and women including its contractors who fought sleeplessly putting out the fire that threatened to ravage its Erin Estate in Nyanga. The workers were awarded with food hampers such as maize meal, cooking oil, salt, matemba, flour, bars of washing and bathing soap to name but a few goods which the company felt was deserving to the families who had gone for days without fatherly and motherly comfort due to fire fighting. This gesture has created a lot of enthusiasm in timber plantations as each estate wants to make sure there are no fires and in the event of an outbreak, the fire is extinguished without dragging feet.
With the onset of the rains, timber companies are looking at planting huge tracts of land that have been destroyed by fire. ATZ alone will this year plant over 3 000hactares of seedlings. Due to fires, seed has gone up in smoke and the company will have to import seedlings to cushion itself from shortages. Other timber companies are also in the same predicament. Planting and replanting will ensure that the country does not experience shortages of timber in the long run as pine trees take 20-25 years to grow and harvest. What with the silviculture activities that are done such as thinning and pruning, to name but a few expensive activities that need to be done to come up with first grade timber!
But, as the fire season goes to an end due to the onset of the rains, much needs to be done to ensure there is stringent legislation that will give a jail term to avoid destruction of the forests. Or is it jail term that is needed. What penalty?
The writer is the corporate communications manager, Allied Timbers Zimbabwe